The other day I was watching a video on YouTube wherein Stephen Meyer and Pete Ward were debating intelligent design. During the question and answer session, one of the audience members asked the two men about the weaknesses of their own positions. By mutual consent, the two men passed on the question. Far be it for two advocates in a public debate to be honest about the weakness of their own positions. Perhaps I am wrong, but in this question I heard the plaintive cry of a kindred spirit. “Am I the only one in the world who finds these issues difficult? Or are these issues obvious to everyone but me?”
I don’t know about you, but intellectual honesty and integrity are very important considerations when I am contemplating arguments made by other people. If a person is intellectually honest, then I will take their argument seriously and investigate what they have said further. If their point is a good one, I am likely to modify my position to accommodate it. If, on the other hand, I am listening to someone who is not intellectually honest, then I am unlikely to consider their argument as being worthwhile enough to investigate further once our conversation is done. If they are not honest then I am unlikely to learn anything useful by taking them seriously. It is a matter of trust and determining whose arguments are worth further exploration and whose arguments are not worth the trouble.
Of course, the trick is to determine who is intellectually honest and who is not. How is this to be done? In the course of my experience, I have learned a few “rules of thumb” that seem to work very well in this regard. If you are arguing with someone about politics or religion or some other issue and they admit that you have some points on your side and that the issue is not completely cut and dried, then it is usually a safe bet that they are intellectually honest and that taking the time to explore their arguments in more detail will be beneficial and worthwhile. If, on the other hand, the issue is cut and dried to your opponent and there is absolutely no evidence on your side and absolutely no doubt at all in that persons mind, then it is usually safe to say that that person is a fanatic with whom reason is impossible and their arguments are not worth exploring any further.
In this vein, I think it is important as intellectually honest Christians to admit that there are problems and difficulties with what we believe. If we are honest about our own doubts and issues, then we can reasonably appeal to those who are honestly considering the question. They will say, “this person is dealing with the questions honestly, therefore I can trust their truthfulness and explore their arguments further.” If, on the other hand, we behave as if there are no reasonable grounds for doubting Christianity, then they will say, “How can I trust what this person is telling me? He is saying that it is obvious that what he is saying is true, but it is not obvious to me as it has not been obvious to many others before me.” Intellectual honesty is essential for Christian apologists who want to have an impact for the truth.
Now, of course, some immature Christians might interject some misinterpreted Scripture at this point. They might quote Psalm 14:1 and say “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” and conclude from this that there is no basis for doubt. There are two points that I would make to such a believer. First, that doubting the existence of God is vastly different from expressing the certitude that God does not exist. Second, that while God might be able to demonstrate to those who do not believe that they were foolish not to believe in him, I am not God and such a demonstration is beyond my capabilities. I have to settle for making the best arguments I can and hoping that God will use what I have done for the good of those around me and his glory.
At this point, a more mature Christian might argue that James has told us that we are not to doubt. “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:6) The response that I would make to such an objection is that choosing not to let doubt deter you from living the life of faith as James has taught us is not the same as arguing to those who do not believe that there is no basis for doubt. To the contrary, it would not be necessary to choose not to doubt if there were no reasonable grounds for disbelief.
Having established that we should be honest about reasons to doubt the Christian faith and having written in a number of posts that I believe that Christianity is the most rational possible belief system (The Demand for Evidence, King of the Marketplace, The Case for Christianity, The Beatific Vision) let us also consider the strongest reasons for doubt that I have come across in my twenty year Christian journey:
- The problem of Hell
- Barbarism in the Old Testament
- Mythology in the Old Testament
- The Flood of Noah
- The evidence for human evolution
- The problem of evil, pain and suffering
- The bad behavior of Christian believers
- Biblical contradictions and errors
These are the primary intellectual difficulties that I have encountered as I have struggled to live the Christian life over the last twenty years. They are in no particular order as, at any given time, any one of them might have been more troublesome than the others.
If you have read what I have written on this site, these issues will seem familiar to you. They constitute the bulk of the topics that I have discussed in my essays, though I would not claim to have answered these questions completely. Rather, my approach has been to present my best answers to these questions in the hope that other people will benefit. As a brief overview of what I have discussed in the past, let us go through these topics one at a time starting with those for which I have no answers.
The Flood of Noah
As far as I am concerned, the single greatest reason to disbelieve in the truth of Christianity and the reliability of the Bible. I have given my best thoughts on this subject in my essay “The Flood of Noah”.
The Evidence for Human Evolution
In a video that is available on YouTube, an internet atheist who calls himself AronRa presents powerful evidence that human beings are correctly categorized as apes, that we are closely related to chimpanzees and that we have wisdom teeth and other features such as the coccyx that strongly suggest that we are descended from earlier primates. This evidence makes it extremely difficult to believe that we were specially created by God and made in his image.
Now Reasons to Believe has given their best shot at answering the evidence from wisdom teeth and I have discussed the coccyx, but this still leaves powerful evidence that seems to support the idea that human beings are the descendants of earlier hominids. One can argue that this evidence is not conclusive evidence of a process of naturalistic evolution, but one is still left with the disturbing question of why God would have created those made in his image in such a way as it looks like they are descended from earlier hominids. On the other hand, one can believe that there is evidence that the evolutionary process was guided and one can thus salvage a close approximation to the Genesis narrative, but this again leaves us with the hugely problematic question of why God created us in this way.
The Barbarism of the Old Testament
When I consider the barbarism of the Old Testament, it cuts to the heart of why I am a Christian. As I have said elsewhere, I am primarily a Christian because I need God’s help to have life, to have health and to be the person that I want to be. But is the God depicted in the Old Testament capable of helping me to be more like the Jesus Christ depicted in the New Testament? Because this issue cuts to the heart of my faith, I have addressed it more than any other.
I gave an overview of my position on the barbarism in the Old Testament in my essay, “The Reformed Christian Quiz“. I expressed my sympathy for the view that in order to get morality out of the Bible that one has to “cherry pick” the good bits in my essay “Quantum Mechanics in Kindergarten“. I have also argued against thinking that human beings could ever be good like God in my essay, “Bad Theology Part 1: Adam in the Garden“. I have discussed the idea that Moses was righteous by faith and not by works in my essay “The Greatest Sins in Human History“. I have also begun the process of reinterpreting the Old Testament from the perspective of considering Moses and the other Old Testament prophets as sinners in my “Throwing Moses Under the Bus” series of essays. This is a tremendous problem and I have addressed it a great deal.
The Mythology of the Old Testament
Quite apart from the problem presented by the barbarism of the Old Testament is the problem presented by the mythical character of many of the stories. From the giant Goliath who was slain by David, to the thousand men killed by Samson to the fish that swallowed Jonah, the Old Testament seems filled with the kind of narratives that one associates with fantastic mythologies that are presumed to have been made up by Christian believers. While I have presented my own inadequate treatment of this problem in my essay “Mythology in the Bible “, I recently found a YouTube video that depicts a discussion between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien which presents a much superior treatment of this subject.
The Problem of Hell
The idea that a being that describes itself as being love incarnate would torture those that rejected him with eternal fire is counter-intuitive to say the very least. Christians who argue that human beings deserve such a fate because of a finite amount of sin are callous in the extreme. I have argued in”The Nature of Hell” that hell is a relative condition similar to being a quadriplegic where there is no direct suffering just the lack of God’s blessing, but intellectual honesty forces one to admit that the literal flames of eternal torment make more sense in the context of the Old Testament and its severe judgments.
The Bad Behavior of Christian Believers
Despite all the evidence against the faith, one would almost have to believe it if Christians were markedly superior to other human beings in terms of their behavior. In my experience, however, this is not the case. Consider the fact that the divorce rate of people who attend Christian church regularly in the United States is statistically identical to the divorce rate of those who do not. ** While one does occasionally find Christians who are exceptionally forgiving or kind, one occasionally finds these people outside the church as well. If the Holy Spirit indwells believers with the power and love of Christ, then why is the evidence of this not more clear? I have discussed this problem in my essays, “Encounter with a Human Derelict“, “The After Action Report” and also a YouTube video on Gandhi, but it is far from solved.
** I have seen this statistic used many times, but I honestly don’t know where it comes from. Could it be false? Let us assume that it is true.
The Problem of Evil, Pain and Suffering
To me, the problem of pain and suffering in this world is intricately entangled with the question of God’s purpose for this world. The whole reason I started this site was to write a book one section at a time that deals with this question. The working title of this book is, “From First Principles: A Christian Apologetic” and the idea is that I take some very basic starting principles as assumptions and derive a religion with the basic characteristics of Christianity from these assumptions. The conclusion of the book is that given the truth of the assumptions, something very much like Christianity would have to be true. (see “Christianity Without the Bible“)
As a part of this derivation, it is my intent to show that the purpose of this world is to demonstrate to human beings that we need God’s help to love one another and thus realize our fullest potential as living, loving and thinking creatures. I have not yet completed all of the writing I have to do on this topic, but some of it can be found in my essays, “Bad Theology Part 2: The Purpose of this World” and “Speculations on the Divine Plan“.
Biblical Contradictions and Errors
In the unpublished drafts section of the management console for this site is an essay entitled “Biblical Reliability” wherein I have outlined this question and my basic answer regarding it. I hope to finish it up at some point in the future.
The Struggle for Faith
In order to have an impact on those who do not believe, Christians must persuade those around us that we are aware of the many difficulties with our faith and that we are facing them with our eyes wide open. If we do not do this, we risk appearing as naive, unthinking people who are engaged in wishful thinking or worse, deceivers who are seeking to sell some snake oil for our own benefit. If we are honest about the difficulties with Christian belief, on the other hand, then those around us may find that the evidence we have for our hope that love, joy, peace, truth, rationality, free will and eternal life actually exist is compelling.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15)